How do modern political parties cope with change?
The current turbulence in Labour is part of a wider picture seen across the West. SimmeringÂ dissatisfaction with established parties and politicians is generating support for iconoclasticÂ individuals and movements in nearly every country to an extent not seen for a long time. FromÂ Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to Syriza, Podemos, UKIP, the AfD, the FN and numerous others,Â merely being not part of the familiar establishment attracts a wave of interest. In Britain, itâ€™s notÂ clear if Labour will settle in markedly different policy positions to its previous stance, and a bad-tempered European referendum with a Leave victory or narrow defeat could leave us talking inÂ similar terms about the Conservatives.
As punters assess how likely these trends are to stay, there is a non-trivial general question. LeaveÂ aside whether these changes are good or bad. How can political parties legitimately change theirÂ political positioning?
Traditionally, in Britain, these things are leader-driven. A leader (Blair, Thatcher) says, â€œThings canâ€™tÂ go on like this, we need to change.â€ The party and the wider electorate may or may not go alongÂ with it, but if they succeed the membership generally either puts up with it or leaves. However, theÂ democratisation of leadership elections (membership rather than MPs) increases the likelihood thatÂ restless members elect a leader with different views to most MPs â€“ who by definition were selectedÂ when the party was whatever it was before.
At this point, honest disagreement can arise, separate from any rivalries or bitterness. Say youâ€™re Â aÂ pro-Trident Labour MP but the party votes to scrap it, or a pro-EU Tory if the party has elected aÂ Eurosceptic leader. Itâ€™s not that you hate the leader or the membership, but you find yourself inÂ disagreement with it. What do you do?
One answer is â€œdefy the party and vote the other wayâ€. But if you do that across a wide range ofÂ issues, inevitably both members and electorate will be unsure what theyâ€™re voting for.
Another isÂ â€œsigh wearily and go along with itâ€. But what if the issues are central to your beliefs?
A third isÂ â€œdefect to the other sideâ€. But thatâ€™s like getting divorced and marrying someone youâ€™ve beenÂ feuding with for years â€“ it goes against the grain.
A fourth is â€œset up a new partyâ€, but weâ€™ve seenÂ where that tends to lead with FPTP â€“ oblivion, and the end of your working life.
Donâ€™t underestimate the interest that MPs have in survival. The number of alternative Parliaments that they could join ifÂ they lose their seats is more or less zero. Itâ€™s no more dishonourable to think about that than it is inÂ any other walk of life, and MPs will be influenced by polling as well as personal belief.
The members have a similar problem. Mad fanatics are a rarity: most members rather like their MPsÂ (who they chose and voted for) and make plenty of allowance for honest differences of view. ButÂ ultimately there will come a point where they get tired of their representative constantly disagreeingÂ with them. There isnâ€™t an iron law â€“ legal or moral â€“ that says that the current parliamentaryÂ membership of any party has an absolute right to determine policy forever.
What parties have to try to do is discuss possible change with as little rancour as possible (which isÂ difficult) and a clear sense of what is a fundamental expectation and what is merely a preference.
Both MPs and members need to be frank during this process â€“ there isnâ€™t anything dishonourableÂ about saying politely, â€œIf we change to policy X I shall feel I can no longer be your MPâ€ or â€œIf youÂ donâ€™t feel able to support X then Iâ€™m afraid we need to find someone who does.â€. But out ofÂ common sense everyone needs to minimise the list of such policies. For example, I know lots ofÂ people who have definite views for or against fracking, but Iâ€™ve never met anyone who changed theirÂ party over it or talked of deselecting an MP who disagreed. Iâ€™m not sure that Trident is that decisiveÂ for most Labour people either, for all the rhetoric â€“ a weapon system that nobody can imagine usingÂ is neither quite as valuable or quite as horrific as one might suppose. Similarly, many Tories have aÂ definite view on Europe, but Iâ€™m not sure that many would really quit the party if it moved in theÂ opposite direction.
Two conclusions. First, itâ€™s important that the legitimacy of disagreement is accepted. Of course anÂ MP selected in a different time may think differently to a group of new members: it doesnâ€™t meanÂ either is morally wrong, and all sides need to think hard before deciding that an issue is absolutelyÂ make or break for them. Second, the pressure of personal loyalty and continuing political careers willÂ tend to dampen down apparently irretrievable differences. Journalists like to highlight the drama,Â but despite Trident and Europe and whatever else comes up, I suspect that the political landscape inÂ 2020 will look less different than we might think, with few defections or deselections and no newÂ parties. Politicians, generally, play the long game. In Britain, itâ€™s often the only game in town.
Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe from 1997-2010